Andrew WK sets sail on the Shiprocked Cruise today. He can and will survive anything. He performed at The Gathering of the Juggalos and the experience did not go well. He was pelted with garbage. He thinks that was a good gig. When asked about his NIGHTMARE GIG, this is what he told us. -ed.
Andrew WK: When I first moved to New York I was looking, just like anybody, for whatever jobs I could find. I was 18 and I didn’t have a job so I was quite desperate. I was looking in the back of a newspaper and they had a picture for musician jobs. It wasn’t just people looking for people to join bands, it was actually paying musician jobs. And I felt pretty relatively confident about my piano skills, not realizing at all what a professional New York level performing musician, in terms of playing on Broadway or playing at clubs, or a wedding band or anything, I had no idea what that meant. I just thought, you know, I’ve been playing piano for 15 years, I could probably get a piano job. So I see this ad in the back of the paper for a piano player and I reach out, paid, I can’t exactly remember the number, but it would have been 10 times the amount of money that I would have ever made a week in my life.
I was feeling pretty good about how it’s going to be wonderful to have a job. It was a place called Cafe Wha? and it sounded vaguely familiar, but I don’t think I’d really heard of it. I went to call them up and spoke to a very nice lady and said, “Oh yeah,” she said, “the piano job,” you know, as she called it. “Come by today and you can meet the owner and if you’re a candidate he’ll talk to you.” I had envisioned some kind of an office which maybe even had a keyboard that maybe even they’d ask me to play, so I could talk a little about the job and meet the guy.
So I go down to Cafe Wha? in the Village. It turned out on a very legendary block. It turned out a very legendary club, like the legendary club of New York, or one of them, you know Jimi Hendrix’s first show, Bob Dylan’s first show, it’s like one of the hotspots for the 60s era of New York live music. Which was the sort of the idea that was still dawning on me as I walked in the place I thought “Wow, okay, this isn’t just some random cafe.” I walked in and there’s a lady at the front desk. It’s very packed and there’s a live band playing. “So why don’t you just take a seat anywhere you want around the stage and the owner will be out and he’ll talk to you at some point.” So I sit there watching the band play and they were all, you know, 3 times my age and extremely good. Where I come from, a live band wasn’t going to be world-class musicians. If they were world class musicians, they weren’t going to have this level of lighting and sound and this kind of audience into this very small bar venue. I was sort of moved by that, just that the level of quality in everything was pretty intimidating. I was just really enjoying the show and waiting for the owner to come and take me back into his office to talk about what the job was.
This guy in the band was playing guitar the whole time from the minute I walked in, he kind of looked like Bill Gates, that was the only way I can put it. He’s very straight, doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the band in terms of having their sort of look. He was that enormous guy that could play guitar so well, but he was, and he was sort of also being a host for the night, introducing the different singers for their bringing up a lot of amazing cover songs, and just again it was a really powerful level performance.
I had been in there for about a half hour starting to wonder if the owner was ever going to come out, and this guy, the Bill Gates-looking guy, gets on the mic in the midst of one of his little stories in-between songs and says “Okay, I understand that there’s a young man I have here to come audition for a new keyboard player.” I was like “Oh wow, that’s crazy that someone is auditioning when here I am meeting for probably the same job. I can’t believe someone is auditioning. Well, it’s going to be good to see who this guy is so I can gauge this job.”
“Young man, come here please. Come on, fella, come up on stage.” And it dawned on me that he was talking about me and that’s when my heart sank and I was completely terrified. It was like a flight-or-fight kind of moment. I was either going to just pretend I didn’t hear him or run out of the place or just say “no” or something or I was going to go up there. It might have been the first time I was in that kind of situation where I really didn’t, not that I didn’t want to do it, if I didn’t do it I would have felt bad, I would have felt like I chickened out.
So at this moment, I was like “OK, well, this is why I moved to New York, this is what I’ve been here for, to be here to have these kinds of experiences, so let’s go.” I could barely speak, I was just shaking, just dripping with sweat. The keyboard player that was with the band had to awkwardly get up out of his area by his keyboards and he seemed kind of pissed and I was really embarrassed and I said “I’m sorry” and I sit down, and Bill Gates says, “So what do you want to play for us? It’s your audition.” I say “Well, I didn’t really imagine it was going to be like this,” and he’s like “Come on, kid, the audience here is starting to get restless.”
I had no idea we were supposed to have this memorized repertoire of every popular song that’s ever been written, and memorize every key that it can be played in, and transpose and all that. For some stupid reason, out of all the things I could have said to play that I would have actually known or maybe could have played through…. how I heard that song “Rocket Man” by Elton John, which is not an easy song, its a complex chord-changer… for some reason, I don’t know exactly why but I don’t know how to play this song all the way. Even now, I would struggle you know, trying to figure that song out off the top of my head.
“Okay, “Rocket Man,” here we go,” I said. “Woah w-w-woah, what key is it in?” I don’t know what key the song is in, and you’re supposed to know that. So he has to apologize to the audience, and the audience is booing. I’m ruining the whole show. I play a hap-hazard version of “Rocket Man” and at this point tears are welling up in my eyes. It’s an out-of-body experience almost. I wasn’t really playing it correctly on the keyboard and some of the guys in the band were being brotherly and trying to help me out and that was almost kind of even worse, sort of emasculating and embarrassing and when it got to the ”It’s going to be a long long time” part he’s says, “I think it’s going to be a long long time before you ever play at Cafe Wha? Get the fuck off the stage.” I was actually kind of relieved at that point. And then, the crowd actually kind of turned on him. There’s this poor kid having a meltdown. They had empathy for me and they kind of cheered me on. When we finished the song he actually kind of had to apologize to me. I made a joke about him looking like Bill Gates, the crowd really loved that. And then I sat in the audience and got off stage and sat there for the least amount of time that I thought I could stay without it looking awkward, and then I just ran out, which I think was about 3 minutes, that I ran out. I remember walking out in one place into the street like the feeling of the air on my face which was so red and so hot.
Brightest Young Things: I’m assuming this is what, like ’97, ’98?
Andrew WK: ’98, I bet.
I’ve never seen that guy again, but I walked by, and I told that story other times and I’m very thankful for it. Kind of going through that made me feel like if I could get through that and literally not die. I have moments where that’s happening, where you feel like you could just actually die, it’s so awful. I didn’t die and I learned some things from that, a lot of things, and I’m okay. I was able to move through the street and I was okay to feel that you can still live. It really didn’t really matter that much.
Brightest Young Things: That’s very inspiring.
Andrew WK: Well I’m glad you got something out of it, other than being just mortified. But it showed me that you can do things even really badly, and still be okay.
As told to Brandon Wetherbee. Edited for clarity.